The German War: A Nation Under Arms
By Nicholas Stargardt
(Bodley Head, 720 pages, £25) There are many books about the British Home Front in the Second World War but far fewer about its German equivalent. There are parallels, of course e, including air raids, rationing and the demandsmands of ‘total war’. But as this fine book demonstrates, the parallels only go so far. The German experience of the war led to a traumatised nation that has only begun to seriously study how the conflict affected ordinary people in the last couple of decades.
Put simply, the key difference between the British and German experiences is that the Germans lost. In Germany, 1945 is referred to as ‘Jahr Null’ – Zero Year – when Allied air raids and the arrival of the occupation forces caused immense damage and the total dislocation of civil society. It also refers to the fact Germany had been a totalitarian state from 1933, and one based on an inhumane ideology that ultimately led to the murder of six million Jews.
Yet, as this book points out, the Nazi authorities constantly worried that public opinion would turn against their policies. But it never did. By and large people knew what was happening to the Jews and even discussed it in public. In the end, though, they either swallowed Nazi propaganda or kept silent.
Nicholas Stargardt looks at the war through the eyes of a dozen or so Germans. Some were anti-Nazi, but most were ordinary people caught up in events not of their making, trying to survive and protect their families. He weaves their experiences through a long and detailed history of the German Home Front.
Don’t let the length put you off. This is a well-written and humane account of a period of madness and how individuals sought to make sense of it. Readers will ask: what would have I done in these circumstances? If we are honest, like most Germans we would have probably grumbled but would have done no more, cowed by the Nazis and their propaganda.
Simon Fowler is a professional writer and
Cologne lies in ruins in the aftermath of Allied bombing raids during the Second World War